Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, talks to media in Whitehorse on Feb. 15, 2018. Hanley spoke at a public hearing regarding cannabis rezoning at Whitehorse city council March 25, to suggest council specifically restrict cannabis shops from opening in the vancinity of Le Page Park. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Concerns over pot near parks could put downtown shop at risk

“I feel like every day is a dumpster fire … and every time we put out a dumpster fire, another one starts up.”

Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley asked Whitehorse City Council to consider including LePage Park among the public parks included in areas which require a buffer from cannabis shops in the city’s downtown core — a move which would directly impact a retailer who has already invested in the area.

Currently, cannabis can only be sold in the Marwell area, where the Yukon government has set up its cannabis store. The proposed amendments would allow for the sale of cannabis in Whitehorse’s downtown core.

Under the proposed zoning bylaw, all pot shops must be 150 m away from schools and 100 m away from each other, shelters, addiction treatment centres and parks containing play equipment. As LePage has no play equipment, it would not be included among those parks which require buffer zones.

Hanley suggested it should be.

“The target audience of concern is our youth,” he said at a public hearing March 25, noting cannabis consumption rates by Yukon youth are “considerably higher” than the national average.

“What we are looking at is places where youth and family congregate.”

Hanley told council that the Yukon has a well-recognized substance abuse issue, with $71 million being spent in 2014 to address substance abuse related health issues. Of that money, $41 million worth was directly attributed to alcohol and $3 million to cannabis.

In June 2017, a cafe and offsales store across the street from LePage Park shut down just two month after is started selling liquor due to public concerns about the uptick in public drinking and intoxication its operation had caused in the park and surrounding area.

LePage is located near Whitehorse Elementary School, and sits directly beside the Yukon Historical and Museums Association (YHMA) building and Music Yukon.

In a follow-up interview March 26, Hanley told the News that the city definition of parks to be exempted as those with play structures “doesn’t entirely embrace the concept of a vulnerable place.”

He noted Shipyards Park was also one such vulnerable place, but, due to its large size, it is not reasonable to ask it be included, as you’d basically be “excluding the entire city” from pot sales if you did.

Including LePage Park in the buffering zones would be a huge problem for Jordi Mikeli-Jones, who also spoke as a delegate at the hearing, along with her husband, Jeremy Jones. The couple want to open a multi-level cannabis shop and information centre at 211 Wood Street, something she says they have been working towards for the last four years.

Under the current the proposed buffer in the bylaw, they are far enough away from Whitehorse Elementary School to operate their business at that site. However, if LePage were included in the restricted areas, a store could not be licensed under the bylaw’s proposed restrictions.

Hanley told the News that “it’s not specifically about” the business Jones and Mikeli-Jones want to open and that he “by no means intends this to be a one-on-one battle,” but he has a job to do in making his recommendations to council regarding public health.

“By no means do I want to restrict or limit legitimate business … but I am particularly concerned about LePage Park,” he said

Hanley also expressed concerns about the hours of operation pot shops can operate within — under the Yukon government regulations, they could technically sell until 2 a.m., like liquor — although a bylaw presently under review by the city limits those hours to 10 p.m.

Mikeli-Jones said her store was not interested in having those late hours, as she felt they posed security and safety risks, and that, living out of town and being a parent herself, being open till 2 a.m. is not appealing to her.

Moreover, the store would have thousands of dollars in video surveillance and security systems and have active public engagement for harm reduction. Both she and Jones have a long history of volunteer work and of contributing to their communities.

Mikeli-Jones is the founder of Kona’s Coalition, an animal welfare organization, something they intend to continue doing with their cannabis shop.

When Jones addressed council, he said he didn’t feel it was fair to be comparing cannabis use and alcohol use, the former of which has been a noted problem in the park in the past.

Jones is the founder of SMART Recovery Yukon, a science-based addictions recovery service. Mikeli-Jones told the News her husband had resigned from his position with that organization as part of opening their pot shop together, to avoid any perceived conflict of interest.

Hanley later told the News he agreed — alcohol has a far greater public health impact than cannabis at this time — but that it’s “easier to ease regulations than put the toothpaste back in the tube, so to speak.”

“We are in new territory here in terms of cannabis legislation… and being overcautious is in general a good approach,” he said.

Mikeli-Jones noted she and her partner actually have “a lot of support” from the community, including letters of support.

Coun. Stephen Roddick asked if they would be open to sharing those letters with council Mikeli-Jones said they would submit them.

Both Mikeli-Jones and Hanley said they had spoken to each other amicably after the hearing. She said Hanley had offered verbal support to the work she was doing.

Hanley told the News that if the couple did all the things they said they would do around security and community engagement, if there was to be “an exception to the rule” then they would be “good candidates.” He wasn’t worried specifically so much about them as he was shops “that would come in behind them,” he said.

The couple are “good corporate citizens” he noted.

Mikeli-Jones expressed some stress and frustration over the situation.

“We’ve done our due diligence” in this process, she said. “We’ve done everything right and we’re still fighting. We just need a door to open. We’re prepared to invest in the community and we need the community to invest in us,” she said.

“I feel like every day is a dumpster fire … and every time we put out a dumpster fire, another one starts up.”

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

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